by Jim Harris
On my 30th birthday, just for fun, I went to a fortuneteller. She told me, “I see your picture in a newspaper, and a headline saying ‘I did it for love.’” Over the intervening years, I have occasionally wondered what that meant. Now I think I know.
On July 4, 1963, my buddies and I were watching the fireworks at the then-Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, 7500 Germantown Ave. Back then the owners of that beautiful landscape were happy to share it with the community. Anyway, it was there that I first met Janie. The July 4 fireworks between us were instant and mutual. We spent the next year being as in love as a couple of 15-year-olds could possibly be.
It was a pretty platonic relationship by today’s standards, but we just couldn’t bear to be apart, and we used every teenage trick in the book to steal some time together, laughing, talking and holding hands. Her dad, who was raising her alone, was beginning to disapprove of me. He was a well-respected psychiatrist and author, and as he reminded me often, he had been an Army Ranger in World War II. Janie secretly told me that he had actually been a cook.
Nonetheless, he was the boss, and when our love affair began to affect Janie’s school work, he put her into a boarding school to keep her education on track. We still got to date occasionally, but the pain of separation was becoming too much. We made plans to run away.
So, late one night in spring, I snuck up to her school on the edge of the Wissahickon Valley, and was met by Janie and a bunch of her dorm mates at the Lankenau Boarding School. They thought our elopement was so romantic that they took up a collection and gave us $50 for our journey. Janie and I slept in the Wissahickon Park that night (in those days there were no Friends of the Wissahickon-backed gunmen trying to massacre deer in the woods), and then set off in the morning to the Greyhound Bus Terminal.
We had heard that there was a place down south where you could get married at 16. We figured we’d just head south and get more details on the way. We asked the man at the bus station ticket window how far we could get on the money we had, and he gave us a rough idea in terms of miles. We went to a map and randomly picked out Winchester, Virginia. We decided against going to a big city like Washington, D.C., because we thought the police there would be more adept at finding runaways. That was a mistake.
When we got off the bus in Winchester — broke and needing a place to stay — we immediately started going into stores looking for jobs. It was a sleepy little farming town, and we could not possibly have looked more out-of-place in our sneakers and polo shirts if we had been wearing clown outfits.
“You’re not from around here, are you boy?” said the man in the general store. I got no job for you, but if you show up at the county garage tomorrow mornin’, you can get work pickin’ apples.” When darkness fell, we didn’t know where to go, so we went back to the bus terminal and fell asleep on a bench.
The next thing I heard was, “Wake up son.” I opened my eyes to see Sheriff Andy of Mayberry about two inches from my face. He had a friendly smile. His deputy woke Janie up, and they took us back to the police station. On the way there, we whispered to each other that we’d give them fake names, addresses and ages, and maybe they’d let us go. When they separated us for questioning, I told them the whole truth within the first 10 seconds (Janie held out a bit longer).
Our long-suffering parents drove down and took us home. I never saw Jane again. She and her dad moved away shortly thereafter. Ironically, part of my sentence in Juvenile Court was that I had to see a psychiatrist. Not surprisingly, it didn’t help. I pined for a good long time, and I made a number of attempts to find
Jane over the next five years or so. It’s probably a good thing for everyone concerned that I didn’t succeed.
I’m happily married today, and luckier than I have any right to be, but I’m still sorry for some of the stuff that I did in the past. I know it was shortsighted and unwise, but hey, I did it for love. Happy Valentines Day to all you lovers, young and old.